The BioGeek Memoirs: Conifers

Conifers. Oh, my goodness, who doesn’t love conifers? As in wonderful smells, pinecones, Christmas trees, snowy days, and fun trips to the mountains. I grew up in southern California and the conifer that I loved as a child was the ponderosa pine. It had bark that pulled apart into jigsaw shaped pieces. The bark smelled like butterscotch (or maybe vanilla), and the long needles grew in little bundles of three… perfect for braiding!! The cones are perfect for dabbing with white paint, sprinkling with glitter, and then using for holiday decorating. Perfect tree, the ponderosa pine. It is beautiful and kind of feathery with clumps of needles near the ends of branches.

Then I moved to Colorado.

Trees in Rocky Mountain National Park. The large tree on the left is a ponderosa pine.

Oh, boy, did I need to learn a lot more about these trees. There are a lot of conifers in Colorado, and they grow in different environments and elevations as you drive up into our mountains. The ponderosa pines are found at lower elevations (5,000 – 7,000 feet) and then as you drive up into higher elevations different trees start to show up as the ponderosas disappear. In high elevations they are nowhere to be found, and the trees that are around 10,000 feet are specialized and designed to live in challenging environments. One tree has branches that are so flexible you can tie them in knots (limber pine), and another is just dripping in anti-freeze sap (bristlecone pine).

One summer I took a forestry class and spent a couple of weeks coring trees and recording their elevation and growth into a large data base maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. I learned to shield my coring activity from casual hikers (Yeah. People in the Boulder, Colorado might take extreme exception to your activities if they suspect that you are harming a tree… tree huggers are alive and well here!) and developed an appreciation for the impact of local environmental conditions on trees.

As a biology teacher I struggled to teach plants (yawn) and taxonomy (super-yawn) to my students. I searched for hands-on activities that could be used to teach these units, and finally remembered that the teachers in the high school where I did my student teaching ran a big lab where students used keys to identify Colorado’s conifers. Another teacher had keys that we could adapt to use with the activity and off I went on a road trip to collect conifer samples in the Rocky Mountains west of the town where I live.

Why use conifers? Well, they are pretty darn interesting if you think about it. The plants produce two different types of cones (seed, on the left, and pollen, on the right) and have leaves that are needle like. They are older than flowering plants in evolutionary terms and have some cool adaptations. They use wind to reproduce and have turpentine and other organic compounds that allow them to stay alive in cold climates. Cut branches are hardy enough to survive handling by hundreds of students as they worked the activity. Yeah. Conifers were the ticket!!

So, how did this work? The students picked up bins with samples of branches and cones from the plants and, using the keys, figured out what conifer they had. The key took the students through a decision tree using needle and cone characteristics that became more and more detailed as they moved down the decision tree.

For instance, were needles single or in clusters? Were they round or flat? Were they sharp or soft to the touch? (Left to right, these three are the blue spruce, the bristlecone pine, and the white fir. Spruce needles are round and sharp, pine needles grow in clusters, and firs are flat needled and soft to the touch.)

Differences in cones can be extremely helpful in identifying the species. Left is the seed cone from a Douglas-Fir and to the right the seed cone from an Engelmann spruce.

The end result of the activity: this student has colored conifers in each genus a different color. See what happened?

I bet you can see it without me saying anything. Conifers that are closely related have very similar characteristics; closely related species are very difficult to tell apart and the differences are subtle. In the real world the final sorting is sometimes done by differences in DNA. It was easy after this activity to move into the more abstract topics of classification (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species) and then link back to evolution with the tree observations: some closely related species actually grow at different elevations on the mountain. Living in different environments, these trees don’t reproduce with each other and have gradually grown apart into different species.

I struggled to key out conifer samples as a new biology teacher. Nowadays I can identify the tree while driving by on the road and I didn’t bother to drive up into the mountains anymore at the end of my teaching days. I would just pull the car over and clip off a little branch and grab some cones if I could: gone in 60 seconds was my motto! There are some great trees in my local park and the high school where I used to teach had 5 different Colorado conifers on the property. I have a Douglas-Fir in my back yard. I can get at least 11 different conifer samples in a one-hour drive around town. I haven’t taught this activity in years and yet I still look for great trees while out on errands.

Because conifers make me happy!!

After all, who doesn’t love conifers?

The view from my front window this morning.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Prairie Dog

Wow, things are really looking up around town this week. The trees are all blooming and I can see that some are getting ready for their leaves to burst out.

My first spring crocus p0pped up through the winter blanket of leaves last week.

We may still get some snow this spring, so the leaves are staying in the flower beds for a few more weeks, but it definitely feels like the tide has turned and we are now well into the new season. Suddenly there are green strips along all of the roads and the fields are flashing green as I drive by… except where there are prairie dogs. Those areas are now bare, and the dogs are leaving their mounds to hunt for food. There are a lot of hungry prairie dogs right now grazing in the fields and along the roads.

These prairie dogs are living between a parking lot and the tracks of a light rail line in the heart of the city where I live.

I love prairie dogs!! There was a colony on display at the San Diego Zoo that was a big hit with visitors, and I certainly thought that they were the cutest things ever when I was a little girl. Seriously, they have those cute little black-tipped tails! They are a riot as they run along the ground. They bark! They are social and very aware of each other while out grazing: a few prairie dogs will stand watch and whistle warnings and all-clears as needed. The prairie dogs living in my city have become nonchalant about moving cars, but if you get out of the car to grab a picture there will be a whistle, the scurry of little prairie dog feet and then the rapid dive down holes. Believe me, I know this well.

See the little head peeking out of the hole? I took this picture through the car window.

I once was sitting in stopped traffic at a light next to a prairie dog colony when there was an abrupt whistle, scramble, and hole dive by all the dogs who had been happily munching on plants a few seconds earlier. Looking to see what had spooked them I was amazed to see a bald eagle soaring through the intersection at the height of the traffic light poles. Wow. That was close, little prairie dogs, but the early warning system worked with seconds to spare.

Um… bald eagles, the symbol of the United States, eat prairie dogs? Yup! Bald eagles arrive every winter here in my state of Colorado to nest and raise their eaglets. The eggs are laid around the middle of February into March, and then the eggs hatch in a little more than a month. Right now, as all the prairie dogs are out and about scrambling for food, the eagles are starting to feed the eaglets. It is a big deal as the nests are enormous and often are in trees that are blocked from the public so that the eagles will be undisturbed; a nest was lost recently and made the news. Those hungry little eaglets are being fed a lot of prairie dogs, to be honest. The parent eagles soar over my city in loops as they search for a meal, and more than once I’ve seen the eagle on the ground with the prairie dog catch. You can access an eagle cam videos here.

Prairie dogs yesterday in the lawn of my Kaiser clinic. If they aren’t chased off this lawn is pretty much doomed.

Yep, that lawn is toast for sure. They are already digging holes into the ground and moving in to stay. So, prairie dogs can be huge pests, but they are tolerated in fields and along roadways all along town because they are essential to the prairie wildlife ecosystem; remember the soaring eagles overhead? Years ago, I acquired a mentor from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was a great photographer. He worked with a group of my 6th grade students to produce a slideshow about prairie dogs that the students presented to the public at an open house at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. While working with my students and the mentor we learned that prairie dogs are a keystone species that is important to many other forms of life in the prairie ecosystem. Some animals, like the black-footed ferret, are almost completely dependent on prairie dogs, while they are important to others like bison, coyotes, eagles, pronghorn antelope, and other types of life such as plants and insects. As it turns out, if a prairie colony disappears for some reason, it may be reestablished later because they are important sources of food for so many other species in our area and have such a positive impact on the environment.

Prairie dog in a field by my library.

Humm… why would a prairie dog colony suddenly disappear? Well, as it turns out, prairie dogs can become infected with fleas carrying plague. Yep. That plague, as in the black death plague. Sometime warning signs appear in fields alerting people to a plague outbreak in my area and we all know not to handle prairie dogs or to walk through fields with colonies. It’s important to treat pets for fleas and to not let students bring sick animals (like squirrels) into your classroom!!!!! Plague cases happen here in Colorado and warnings are common. That’s the downside of living along with prairie life in a state such as mine.

So, this all sounds a little grim for the poor little prairie dogs, right? Towards the bottom of the food chain. Outbreaks of plague. Yikes!

Did I mention that prairie dogs are EVERYWHERE right now? Thriving in an urban environment? Living successfully in fields everywhere? And, I want to add, the baby prairie dogs aren’t even out yet. If you think that prairie dogs are cute, you should see the little guys once the parents bring them out. 🙂

The truth is prairie dogs colonies are monitored and protected when they can be. Outbreaks of plague in colonies are taken seriously and the area is treated to halt the spread of the insects carrying the bacteria that causes plague; efforts are made to help the colony recover. Prairie dogs are flourishing, and because they are, they have contributed to the success of other species that are coming back from the edge of extinction or endangerment. The bald eagle, the bison, and especially the black-footed ferret are benefiting from the return of healthy prairie dog colonies.

Yesterday I went to pick up a form from my doctor and there was this little herd of dogs on the side lawn. They had come in from a nearby field and were running amok in the grass. It made me so happy to see them! As soon as I drove over near them there was a bark, a scramble back across the road to the field, and little heads watching me from new holes in the lawn.

I just love prairie dogs!!

The BioGeek Memoirs: Bees

The last few days have been warm and sunny, and the perennial shrubs are starting to green up out in the garden. My patch of catmint is already coming back to life and the return of bees to the garden is right around the corner.

Honeybee in my catmint last year.

I just love bees! I used to be afraid of them as a child (I mean, who wouldn’t be? They are kind of scary and they sting!) until I learned the difference between bees and wasps. Now I get a little thrill seeing the bees buzzing around plants in the garden and set boundaries with the paper wasps whenever they build a hive in my yard. (Here’s the boundary… if the wasps leave me alone, they are safe. If I get harassed or stung that nest is history!)

Of course, I am planting things that the bees like in my yard! They just love my sedum and viburnum along with the catmint, but they also spend some time with the dandelions. They absolutely love the neighborhood flowering trees. Just as I have established some boundaries with the wasps in my yard, I have negotiated some boundaries with the (male) neighbors over dandelions. They tend to get a little worked up if I don’t eradicate every single dandelion in the front yard, so I do stay on top of them out front… (sigh)… but in the back I have some carefully maintained dandelion plants that are now the size of romaine lettuces. Bees love dandelions!! Since dandelions bloom really early in the spring they are an important source of pollen for bees so I let them bloom and then cut off the seed globes before the seeds fly. Later in the year the leaves on those dandelion plants are food for my wild bunny. Shhhh… the dandelions are a secret that my favorite neighbor, Alton, doesn’t know about. He mows the front lawn for me every week in the summer, and wonders why I won’t let him do the back yard… 🙂

Bunnies eat dandelions!

Long ago I had a bumblebee nest in my back yard. These bees (they are kind of fuzzy instead of smooth, are larger than honeybees, and mine had a red band at the top of their abdomen) live in things like woodpiles or holes in the ground. In my yard the bees were living in a hive in the ground, so I built a little shelter over the nest with flagstones. The hive survived year after year, and we came to love these gentle little bees.

Bumblebee at my catmint. See the fuzz?

The bees flew exact flight paths every afternoon coming home with pollen, and if you accidently walked into the flight path, they would bounce off you (repeatedly) and hover in the air waiting for the path to reopen. It was so cute! These bees were so gentle that no one in our family was ever stung except for a cat who took a nap on top of the opening to the hive… sad boy, we found the bee clinging to his belly once we calmed him down.

Morgan: that bee was a nightmare!!!

Every year as a biology teacher my students and I learned about bees as we watched a NOVA program together called Tales from the Hive. The students loved, loved, loved this show. I attended a workshop on bees at the University of Colorado and put my name in to win a beehive for my classroom and sadly lost to another teacher who absolutely, positively did not deserve that hive as much as I did (!!!) but I’m over it now. Sniff. The students and I were all crushed at the news that I had lost…

Why learn about bees? Well, bees are especially important in our ecology as pollinators. Basically, flowers are all about reproduction, and if the pollen on the flower (the male part) isn’t carried to the female part of the flower there won’t be any seeds or baby plants in the future. Plants get pollinated by lots of different means, but many plants rely on bees. The flowers are specifically designed to attract bees, and bees rely on the flowers to survive. We benefit from this relationship between bees and plants as the resulting process produces a lot of our food. Some crops are 90% dependent on bees for reproduction, and altogether about one third of our food is dependent on bees. Believe it or not, as the blooming season moves north up the planet there are mobile beehives that travel north as well, traveling to orchards and fields, bringing the bees as pollinators for those crops. As a teacher I could use bees to teach about ecology, evolution, invertebrates, sociobiology, and bioethics. Bees were really important to me as a teacher!

So, how much do I love bees? Well, I spent a summer reading a whole series of books about bees and blogged about it here. I spent a week one June on horseback in the Colorado wilderness riding a horse named Industrious Bee.

Bee and me. What a great week that was!!

I spent another summer teaching an advanced biology program with the best student teacher ever and learned even more about bees here in Colorado because his mother was a beekeeper. When the program ended in July, I received a little gift package of honey from him. See. If bees are involved, all things are good!

How much do I love bees? Well, I knitted myself my own little bee to keep me company over the winter.

The pattern for this bee is by Claire Garland and is called Bees are Beautiful.

Yes, they are!

The Biogeek Memoirs: Goldfish

I know, I know. You were hoping for something a little on the wild side like, maybe, pronghorn antelope, and here I am writing about… goldfish. Hey, goldfish are kind of cool, and I have a lot of fun memories about them.

My first goldfish tank was delivered to my house by my mom as a gift for my oldest son. That tank led to another in time, and then classroom fish tanks, and finally a huge tank in my family room. Goldfish are great. Goldfish are the stuff of science if you are an intrepid biology teacher who can deal with the chaos and squeals in your classroom.

I had a large tank towards the front of my classroom that housed a variety of goldfish.

I kept a few fancy goldfish in the classroom tank, and during the year new fish would get dumped in because they were short term visitors destined to do science with the kids. The new fish were usually cheap feeder fish sold by pet stores as food for turtles, snakes, and other hungry critters. These lucky guys hit the jackpot since they got to do science!

Goldfish respiration lab. The student is counting how many times the goldfish opens and closes its gill covers each minute.

Goldfish are cold blooded critters, so their need for oxygen is determined by their environment. If the water is warm, the fish need more oxygen. If the water is cold, they need less oxygen. Oxygen use reflects the rate of biochemical reactions in living things; determining how fast the fish is “breathing” in different water temperatures can reveal the relationship in the fish between the water temperature and how fast it can do its body chemistry to produce energy. This lab was a riot as the kids handled the fish, ice cubes, warm water, and got their data collected and graphed. I’m pretty sure that they found that the fish chemistry doubled every 10 degrees. Oh. That’s why fish in cold water are sluggish!

Once the lab was finished the fish were returned to the aquarium to live their best lives until they could be adop1ed out to new homes. Yep. These fish were a hot ticket item and there was a drawing to decide who could take one home.

Fish who didn’t get a home right away got to hang around for a second round of science. Did you know that if you carefully catch a goldfish, wrap it up in a wet paper towel, and then pop the tail under a microscope you can see the flow of blood through the tail? Yep!! It is pretty amazing! Here’s a YouTube video showing the blood moving though the blood vessels in the fish tail (really cool!), and here is another one showing a student doing the lab. The whole fish burrito treatment isn’t too hard on the fish if you get them back into the tank within ten minutes, and I only used one fish for each class as I could project the digital image from the microscope onto the classroom screen so everyone could see what was happening. You can count the pulse of the goldfish that way!

One day a student brought me come crayfish left over from his father’s restaurant order and we added them to the fish tank. Oops. Crayfish can catch goldfish. Talk about chaos in the classroom! Um… natural selection, anyone? Several fish were lost to the crayfish but one wiley little comet goldfish evaded the crayfish with ease and eventually outlived them all. It grew to become a 6 inch goldfish giant that the students named Fred. Fred learned to beg for food. Fred loved the 6th period class more than any other because they brought him scraps of lettuce and oranges from lunch every day. Fred was so big he had the whole tank to himself unless some little feeder fish were visiting for a lab. Fred went to another classroom one quarter during a big lab push in my classroom and we had to bring him back because students told me that Fred was getting scared and picked on in its new classroom habitat.

Yep. An important classroom lesson about the responsible and ethical care of the creatures under our control was delivered by… a goldfish.

When I left that school for another job in the district Fred came home with me and lived out the rest of his life in a bigger tank with some nice fancy goldfish to keep him company. I think that he still missed the students.

Hannah and the CoalBear have their birthdays this month!

I’ve been thinking about goldfish lately because Mateo (AKA the CoalBear) needs lots of attention. There isn’t enough entertainment in the world to meet his needs. I have bought him lots of new toys. He chases feather teasers and the laser light every day. There are cat trees in the windows so he can watch the squirrels and the bunny. He gets tons of attention!

I bought the cats a spider plant to hang over their cat tree! Mateo has been playing (and munching on) the new plant.

I’m now thinking of getting the cats a little goldfish tank to watch.

Yeah. A goldfish aquarium! That’s the ticket.

It’s not like I’m longing for a tank of fish. Oh, no, nothing like that.

Goldfish memories are the best.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Rose

My mother was a great lover of roses. One of my earliest memories was of an ongoing battle she had with the family dog and a newly planted rose bush. My mom planted the rose bush in a garden along one side of the house. The dog dug it up. My mom replanted the rose bush, and the dog, a boxer mix, dug it up again.

My mother, not one to give up easily, spanked the dog with the rose bush and replanted it.

Not my mom’s roses, but they were bright red like these.

That bush did really well and was covered with blooms every year. I can’t remember the color for sure, but I think that they were red. Our dog was so well behaved in the garden for the rest of her life that the story of the rose bush battle took on the stuff of legend. Look at that rose bush, my sister would say. Mom once spanked the dog with that bush!!

Later in her life my mom grew tea roses in her garden that were also the stuff of legend. These shrubs were huge; at least 4 feet high and the producers of really showy blooms; people occasionally knocked on my mom’s door to ask what type of rose they were. I once asked my mom what she did to get her roses to grow and bloom so well. I expected to hear some complicated formula to produce fabulous blooms that featured bone meal, wood ashes, and who knows what else… Nope. It was a really, really easy routine. Feed the roses Miracle Gro fertilizer every week, prune them once a month, and if they didn’t respond satisfactorily rip the shrub out and go buy another one. My mom, an agent of evolution in her rose garden. Who knew her success was partly due to ruthless natural selection? That earlier incident with the dog should have tipped us off!

Now I grow roses. I feed them Miracle Gro, prune them after each blooming, protect them from early frosts, mulch them with care. They are doing well, but not as well as my mom’s did. I tell myself that is because I live in a different climate from the one where she grew her show-stopping roses, but the truth is she had quite a gift for rose growing. Anyway, here are my favorites.

The pink rose on the left is Princess Alexandra of Kent, the yellow rose is Charles Darwin, and the one on the right is Hot Cocoa. I just love the English roses for their shape and scent, but they don’t do that well in my climate. The Hot Cocoa rose is hardier and handles the heat and low humidity better. Anyway, don’t they look nice?

Wait. I have more roses!

These roses are more like the wild ones that grow in our mountains. The one on the left is a Home Run, and the one on the right is a Cinco de Mayo rose. I love these guys; simple, hard-working and favorites with the bees. They handle the climate here well and flourish in the long dry summers.

I do have more roses, but you get the idea. There are rose bushes along the driveway, at the front of the house, in all the flower beds in the back yard, and even in pots in the house. You can never have too many roses is kind of a motto of mine.

I grow the roses for myself, but I also grow them for my mom and the other rose growers in my family. My aunt grew roses too and had a huge climber that I envy to this day. For all I know rose growing has been going on for generations in my family. Every single rose shrub, each rose bloom, is a link to the past and a promise of beauty in the future. You can never go wrong with a rose.

My mom died one year early in May after a long battle with cancer. A few days after the funeral was Mother’s Day, and in her memory I planted six red floribunda roses in my front flower bed. Those roses, bright red Showbiz roses, bloomed like my mom herself was taking care of them.

One day someone knocked on my door to ask what they were.

My mom would have been so proud!!

The BioGeek Memoirs: Sand Dollar

I grew up in Southern California in the US not too far from beach towns. My parents would rent a cabin each summer and we spent weeks playing on the beach and in the surf. I spent many a morning playing with small animals along the beach like crabs and sea anemones and had a pretty good shell collection by the end of each summer. One of my very favorite early morning gleanings was the rare, perfect sand dollar.

Three perfect little sand dollars.

What I didn’t know as a child is that the sand dollars that I collected during early morning walks on the beach were just the skeletons of what was once a living animal that looked like this:

A living sand dollar. Credit: Frédéric Ducarme, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I collected many, many seashells each summer; these shells were created by the animals that lived in them when they secreted and deposited calcium carbonate outside their bodies. In the case of sand dollars, the animal deposits little calcium carbonate plates internally to create the inside skeleton made of the same material as shells are. Cool, right? I never suspected that the living sand dollar was covered with all of those short fuzzy spines that helped it bury itself in the sand where it can move around. Those little guys used to live off the shore of Southern California where I lived, moving though the sand, eating little bits of algae and whatever else they could find in the sand of the ocean bottom. Preyed upon by fish, the skeletons of the dead animals washed up on the shore where I found them.

In my high school years my family moved to a beach town. Woohoo! Beachcombing for sand dollars continued year-round! I dated (and later married) a guy who loved to surf; I poked around in tide pools while he was out catching waves. My love affair with all the living things in the shoreline ecosystem continued during those years; my collection of shells and sand dollars grew.

Imperial Beach, California. Best town ever for the BioGeek high schooler.

I continued to love sand dollars when I grew up. I learned in college that they, like all echinoderms, have bodies that are organized in a 5-part radial symmetry. Strange, right?! But true. All sea urchins, sand dollars (AKA sea biscuits), sea stars, and sea cucumbers have a clear 5-part body organized around a central point (that gives them their radial designation).

See the 5 arms of this sea star? When the animal was alive it looked the same no matter which arm was “down”: radial symmetry.

I have continued to accumulate sand dollars as an adult. One day I discovered 3 wonderful sand dollars in my mailbox at work: an anonymous gift from a student, I think. There was a silver and gold sand dollar necklace at a store I passed one day on a trip to San Fransisco: of course I bought it!! Then there was my trip to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I saw a sand dollar fossil for sale in the gift shop.

Look at that! A fossil that is millions of years old that looks just like the sand dollars that I used to pick up on the beach as a child.

I am often struck with amazement at how this simple, simple creature has so successfully survived in its little niche over the millennia. Mostly defenseless, relying on guile, concealment, and luck, the species continues to this day.

Today my fossil sand dollar and one that I was gifted (upper right in the picture) hang out on a tray on my coffee table. I may no longer live in the beach town of my childhood, but the beach, and the animals that I loved as a child, remain with me.

The BioGeek Memoirs: June Bug

In 2010 my school district sent me to Baltimore, Maryland for a couple of weeks to get the training for an upcoming course that the district was offering. It was great! I met a lot of new friends, got the training that I needed, ate yummy food, and went to Washington, D.C. for the weekend. Okay, the National Mall is a little overwhelming. I only had the one day to visit as many sites as I could. The Vietnam Memorial. The World War II Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial. The Washington Monument (hey… the White House is right over to the right…). The National Archives. The Smithsonian Museum. THE SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM!!!

You know that I had to go into the Smithsonian.

I didn’t have a lot of time once I got into the museum, but they had an exhibit about Charles Darwin and the Evolution of Evolution. Wow. There was no way this little BioGeek and teacher of biology was going to miss that! We only had an hour but of course I raced through the exhibit getting what I could out of it and then into the giftshop for a couple of mementos.

I bought a fossil, this book, and the funny little necklace that you see on the book. The dark blob at the top of the photo is Mateo (AKA the CoalBear) coming in to grab the necklace.

Let’s take a closer look at the necklace that I had to buy as soon as I saw it.

It was a June bug!!

Oh, my goodness. I just loved June bugs when I was a kid. We would find them clinging to the side of the big elm tree in the backyard. Bright, iridescent green, big and slow moving, they were easy for us to catch and haul around. We used to tie a thread around their bodies and let them fly in a circle around us. You could sport them on your shirt as shiny and unique jewelry. They were quite the find when I was a little kid.

I don’t think that my parents were as excited about the June bugs as we were. The larvae are major pests as they mature in the ground, chomping down on any roots or organic materials that they can get their little mouthparts onto and damaging the lawn. Then there were the adult beetles. Um… my mother grew this big patch of boysenberry bushes that we harvested fruit from all summer. She would send us out with little pails to pick (and eat) the berries that she turned into endless jars of jam and countless cobblers. She loved her berries. So did the June bugs. I kind of think that’s why we could always find one in our yard on hot June days.

Mateo: June bugs are good for kitties to play with, too!

In her later years my mom grew a big patch of berries along the fence of her yard. Instead of June beetles she battled gophers in her yard; the gophers tunneled through the yard and build a minor mountain under the spreading canes of the berry plants. My eldest son became a berry picker himself and took glee in chasing the gophers with my mom, wielding a garden hose in battle as the gophers practically laughed at them. She still managed to produce several cases of berry jam each summer, but I’m pretty sure that she would have swapped the gophers for June bugs in a heartbeat.

Today I live in Colorado and there isn’t a June bug in sight. It gets too cold here in the winter to grow boysenberries and I have to resort to buying blackberries at the summer fruit stands. I still have that cobbler recipe that my mom used (it came from a flour bag in the 50’s), and every year I make blackberry cobbler and think that maybe I should make some jam, too.

Why did I have to buy the June bug necklace? After all, it has been never worn, but is still treasured.

Because the second I saw it that hot June day in Washington, D.C. I was instantly transported back to my childhood, picking boysenberries, covered in scratches and berry juice, playing with June bugs in the summer heat of a Southern California day.

Good times!

p.s. Do you feel the urge to make your own berry cobbler? I blogged about it here.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Yarrow

Hi. I bet you were looking for another animal, weren’t you? Plants need some love too, you know.

Yarrow from my garden.

Yarrow is a plant that does really well in the climate where I live; actually, it is a plant that is native to Colorado and can be found in many other biomes. It has kind of lacy leaves and produces large flat blooming clusters filled with tiny white (or colored) flowers. The plants that I have in my garden have been produced for the popular market and are nice and showy. The flowers are large, last most of the summer, and draw a lot of pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies. They mostly play nice with the other plants (okay, they have a habit over overgrowing the smaller perennials, so I have to ruthlessly weed out the plants that are out of bounds), and I like the lacy green plant as much as the flowers.

The first yarrow I ever noticed was a bunch that was planted along the curb in a busy intersection. This plant received no care, didn’t seem to get additional water beyond precipitation and splashes from the street, and looks fantastic. It was covered in huge yellow blooms that kept their color for most of the summer. Every single summer the plant put out more blooms and got bigger over the years: a perennial for sure. Hmm… what a great plant, I thought. Of course, I put some yellow yarrow in the garden.

Then I bought a spinning wheel. Then I found someone who had a flock of sheep and beautiful fleeces for sale. In just a few months I had spun my way through that first white fleece (a sheep named Bob) and had all of that yarn to dye. I took a natural dye workshop from Maggie Casey at Shuttles, Spindles & Skeins in Boulder, Colorado. What a fun (but smelly) day that was!

We made several dyes and learned how to get them to “bite” onto the yarn with mordants (think of mordants as linking chemicals that attach the dye molecule to the protein of the wool) like alum and iron. I loved the indigo dye vat that I made that day and got lots of blue yarns from it. There was a nice golden yellow from onion skins, a raspberry from brazilwood, and a sage green dye extracted from yarrow using iron nails for the mordant.

Close-up of the sock I knitted from the indigo and brazilwood dyed yarn. This sock, now more than 20 years old, was made using three shades of indigo, the raspberry (now kind of clay colored) contrast stripe is the brazilwood, and the dark grey is the natural color of another sheep named Silverheels, because of course he was. Everything is now faded, but you get the idea.

That sock, a genuine homespun, naturally dyed, hand knit item, has been my go-to boot sock for a couple of decades and was for a time my “interview” sock when asked to show a sample of my work to clients that I knitted for. Faded, but still going, it has been living in my car as part of the winter travel kit.

Back to the dyeing! Oh, boy. That yarrow was a smelly mess as we boiled the stems, leaves and flowers on the stove out on the porch. Seriously, this stuff could be medicine. Oh, wait. It can be medicine! Yarrow was known by early healers as a plant that could be used to stop bleeding and has lots of different names, some of which refer to this ability to staunch blood like nosebleed plant or woundwort. Luckily none of us were bleeding that day; we strained the vegetable matter (and nails) out of the boiled yarrow mess pot, added back in our skeins of yarn, and simmered gently until we had a nice sage green color.

That yarn became socks that I gave away to a coworker. The love for yarrow remained and I added white yarrow to my garden years later, and a couple of summers after that a wonderful purplish-pink yarrow joined the party.

This plant hangs out with my lavender.

The pink is my favorite. The plant is spreading out and taking over the whole garden that I planted it in (hang in there, lavender, you can stand up for yourself!). It blooms like crazy all summer and I keep thinking that I should cut the flowers to preserve them. I never have used the plants for dye, but I still have a lot of white yarn that would love to get some color going.

Lavender holding its own with the yarrow.

Beautiful yarrow, evoking forever the memory of that great Saturday dyeing yarn from a sheep named Bob in Maggie’s driveway. What could be better?

The BioGeek Memoirs: Garter Snake

Last summer, while walking through the garage on my way to the front, I came across a little garter snake moving across the concrete floor towards me. “Oh, no you don’t!” I told him. “Back out the door you go!”

That little guy flipped right around and speedily snaked his way right back out the way he came. “Out, out…” I told him as I continued to herd him until he was safely back out front.

Photo Credit: Inklein, downloaded from Creative Commons

I’ve had many, many encounters with garter snakes over the years. They are common in the yard where they sun themselves in the mornings. They will even climb up into shrubs as they try to catch those early morning rays: during an early morning stop at a creek getting water to use in a biology lab I accidently chose a path through a group of draped and sunning garter snakes. The students through it was just hysterical when I arrived in class that morning somewhat rumpled and covered in burrs after I had leapt around like a crazy person trying to avoid the snakes. I was picking burrs out of my fleece vest all day…

I live on the edge of the Great Plains region of the United States; fields and residential areas broken by open spaces with small waterways moving through them. These snakes are relatively small and hang out on the land and in the water catching whatever they can to eat. What do they eat? Whatever they can catch, evidently! I spent some time online trying to nail this down as I do wonder what that little snake in my yard is going to munch on (not my baby bunny… no!) and discovered that they eat earthworms, slugs (yay!), small rodents (another yay!), fish, and other small animals in the riparian area where they live.

My little snake appeared in the garage late in the summer. I seem to see a lot of them at that time of year; the babies are born alive (the mother holds onto the eggs internally until it is time for the baby snakes to emerge) and then there are little snakes (pencil thin and less than a foot long) whipping along across the sidewalk and through the lawn. These baby snakes are prime targets for the adventurous cat looking for the best cat toy ever as they frantically race back and forth through the garden and hiding along the landscaping timber.

There were few things that my cat Morgan loved more than a great garter snake chase!

I, of course, was more worried about the snake. Okay, I’m also not a fan of the cats dragging the snake around and maybe even into the house. Once I had a snake loose in an upstairs bedroom; it had been brought in by my beautiful Siamese cat. Luckily the cat’s behavior helped me locate it (it had slithered up the front of a dresser and was hiding along the edge of one of the drawers with the cat’s nose right on it…) and it was captured and returned to a safe cat-free area outdoors.

I used to have a garter snake in my 6th grade science classroom. It had a large screen-covered aquarium with a big dish of water, branches to climb on, and plants and bark to hide in on the bottom. It took me a while to figure out what to feed it… crickets just sat on its back and rode it around; the snake looked kind of sad to have its cage invaded by insects. The students and I dropped in earthworms. Nope. Lunchmeat was completely ignored. I refused to try baby mice. Finally, I bought it some feeder goldfish and dumped then into the water dish. Bingo! Obviously, this snake was pretty aquatic in its orientation, and it happily chased down and snacked on four little feeder goldfish once a month. Who knew they eat fish? Obviously, they do!

That little snake was a happy camper in its inner-city classroom for a couple years. It had a nice heat lamp that it basked under in the mornings, draped across the wooden branches in its cage. On hot afternoons it spent its time in the water dish staying cool. Overnight it burrowed down into the wood chips in the bottom of its cage. Since snakes can’t regulate their own internal temperatures like we do it moved around in its environment to keep its internal temperature in a comfortable range.

One day the cage was empty: my snake had pushed open the screen cover and escaped. Oops. Umm… of course the students noticed that he was gone. Two days later my principal crept in during class and told me that my snake was sunning itself on a windowsill in a classroom upstairs. Yep. There he was, looking exceeding pleased with himself. The students had recognized him right away. I had to buy that teacher a Starbucks gift card…

When I left that job the snake was released back into the same riparian area where he had been caught two years earlier. Hope you had a happy life, little guy! I wonder what he told the other snakes about his years in a 6th grade classroom where he learned all about the life cycle of stars, the space shuttle, ecology, weather, and some simple chemistry?

He was a well-educated snake!

P.S. My neighbors don’t enjoy the garter snakes as much as I do, but I view them as an essential part of the local backyard ecosystem. My neighbors struggle with mice that invade their garages and homes each fall, and something keeps munching on their flowers. Somehow, I don’t have the same problems. Go get those slugs, garter snakes!!

You can learn more about the snakes of Colorado here.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Pill Bug

Okay, you know this little guy well. I think that I first called him a roly poly when I was a child because… if you mess with them or pick them up they roll up into a little ball. Those little rolled up bugs look a little like pills, hence the alternative name: pill bugs. I suspect that we were kind of mean to roly polies when we were kids. Poor guys.

Roly poly from my garden.

I have quite a few of these critters hanging out in my garden. They appear in the loose dirt as I pull out weeds, move stones, and dig around in my gardens. They build extensive tunnels under my bricks in the side garden and are feasting away on the leaf and mulch debris and landscape timber around my gardens. They are, essentially, decomposers and really excel at that niche in the garden ecosystem. Can they also eat leaves, roots, and other things that I want to grow in the garden? Well… yeah. They can be a problem, but I think that since I mulch pretty aggressively due to our dry climate that hasn’t been an issue for me.

Did you think that they were insects? I mean, we call them pill BUGS. Nope. They are actually a type of crustacean. As in, they are land dwelling cousins of lobsters and crayfish. They rely on gills to obtain oxygen, and they have other characteristics common to crustaceans like the hard exoskeleton, jointed appendages and two sets of antennae on their heads. (One set is not visible to the curious gardener. Bummer. I have looked.)

These isopods (that’s the name of the crustacean group that they belong to) are also called potato bugs. That is kind of my favorite because you can catch them by cutting a potato in half, scooping out most of the inside, and then putting the potato back into the garden where it will attract pill bugs for you. Easy peasy, right? Here’s a little video that shows how to catch them with a potato.

That explains why I used to take some potatoes to school with me, make a couple of potato traps in my AP Biology class, and then assigned the class the homework of catching 10 potato bugs each over the next week.

Say what?

I used the pill bugs in class to do a lab with them that helped them identify animal behaviors and to also learn some things about experimental design with live animals. Poor little guys. They became the star performers in an open-ended inquiry lab where students had to generate an hypothesis, create the test chamber, collect data, and then draw conclusions from their results.

Choice chamber made from petri dishes. There is a little door between the dishes that lets the potato dudes move between the chambers.

I know, I know… those aren’t pill bugs! I dug around in my bead collection and found these to stand in for the real things. (Um… it is winter and snowing outside…) Still, you can get the idea of how this worked. The students would set up the chambers to offer the pill bugs a choice between the two sides; the pill bugs would run around like crazy and the students would collect data that would (hopefully) reveal a clear preference in their environment. Try to imagine student teams trying to set up the chambers and then getting in 10 pill bugs, putting the lids onto the dishes without harming one of their experimental animals, and all the chaos that ensued. Shrieking. Escaped pill bugs. Ice cubes melting on lab notebooks…

The trick was to offer the isopods a clear choice: wet/dry, warm/cold, sweet/salty, or maybe covered/open conditions.

The second trick was to make sure that the isopods were being offered only one choice.

The final (and most important trick) was to figure out how to collect data and then process it. Teams struggled to come up with a data table. Once you have the data, how do you make meaning from it? Most teams decided to count the number of critters in each dish every 30 seconds and then graphed the results to show the preferences.

At the end of the lab cycle the pill bugs were all released in the landscaping right outside my classroom where they went back to their best little pill bug lives in the bark mulch and plantings along the front of the building. My principal never caught on to what my class was up to, but he did once ask me why kids from my class were frantically digging through the mulch out front. “Oh. Those kids forgot to do their homework on time,” I said as I beat a path out his office door. Poor man. He had been an English teacher before he became a principal.

So, what do pill bugs like? They like to be under cover. They also prefer damp to dry, cool is much better than warm (they will all stand on an ice cube to try to get away from the warmer dish), they avoid salt, and they prefer rotting potato to fresh potato.

I loved this lab. I always used it towards the start of the year as it was extremely helpful in establishing good practices in hypotheses, experimental designs, data presentation, dependent and independent variables, and, of course, lots of details about pill bugs and animal behavior. It was helpful in establishing norms and lab expectations in my classroom in a lower risk environment (unless you were one of the pill bugs) as other labs involved more chemicals, sharp instruments, and stressful time constraints.

All that comes back to me every time I weed the garden and the roly polies emerge, potential experimental animals, each one of them.

Pill bugs and the advancement of scientific knowledge.

I bet that you will never look at pill bugs the same again.